An increase in sexual freedom and pleasure can lead to a better, not worse, society.
Sexual Liberation as a Characteristic of Utopia
In the iconic 1932 novel Brave New World, author Aldous Huxley characterizes pleasure as a facet of a dystopia. Huxley describes sexual pleasure as being used to manipulate and distract people from the real pleasure of freedom. Although some of Huxley’s points, particularly his condemnation of compulsory or forced sexuality, resonate to this day, newer literature and changes in public opinion suggest that the way we as a society look at sexual pleasure could be shifting. In the 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, a society that looks a lot like Huxley’s Brave New World in terms of pleasure, one in which sexuality is fluid and unabashed, is framed as a utopia. Today, in the early twenty-first century, we are currently seeing a rise in sex workers as well as new pleasure technology, which some are attributing to a collapse in traditional values and associating with an evolution in to a Brave New World-esque society. I show that many of the United State’s current laws are more dystopian than a hypothetical world where sexuality is not shameful and present how an increase in sexual freedom and pleasure can lead to a better, not worse, society.
While there are other forms of pleasure often associated with dystopias, such as drugs like “soma” in Brave New World, this paper will address sexual or sensual pleasures. Sex, as compared to other types of pleasures like drugs, drinking, or even leisure, is interesting in that it sparks controversial views despite its necessary utility. It is important to address that, in dystopias like Huxley’s, sex is often separated from conception, which makes it easier to condemn and separates it from any possible “purpose” aside from pleasure. Sex has consistently been a large fixture in culture, but because of fluctuating factors in culture such as religion, politics, and innovations like contraceptives, historical context surrounding views on sexual pleasure are important to address. In the case of Brave New World and Aldous Huxley, the historical context of the novel’s inception reveals valuable information. In an article called “Huxley’s Feelies,” author Laura Frost argues that Huxley’s negative view of sexuality as well as erotic media, explained in part by the mores of the early twentieth century, is an integral part in recognizing why and how the novel can often critique sensual pleasure itself, and not the compulsory nature of it. Frost cites an article written by Huxley in 1929 called “Silence is Golden” in which he writes about his experience seeing The Jazz Singer. Unsurprisingly (as Huxley seems to have a history of disliking things for the wrong reasons) the article focuses less on the racism and blackface in the film, but more on the popular opinion at the time that “talkies,” which were replacing silent films, were ruining the artistry and tradition of movies. In “Silence is Golden” Huxley refers to the talkies as “the latest and most frightful creation-saving device for the production of standardized amusement.”1 This mentality was growing in traction at the time; even Charlie Chaplin, momentarily of the mind that the addition of sound to movies was contributing to cultural degradation and making the art less pure, pledged to never speak in a film despite later speaking in several talkies.2
Subsequently, Frost claims that Huxley is “less concerned with the dehumanization of the industrial age than the decline of its morals.”3 In Brave New World, the fact that people are raised to sleep with as many people as possible, whether they want to or not, is condemned, but Huxley often conflates this with the condemnation of any sexual promiscuity at all. Additionally, Huxley often argues that sexuality has no place in culture. John, the “savage” character from a Native American reservation who travels to Brave New World, is representative of someone who has grown up with more traditional values separate from the dystopia’s. This exchange between John and The Controller is an example of how Huxley framed the novel to completely juxtapose what he believes is valuable to culture with sexuality’s part in culture:
“Othello’s good. . . . Othello’s better than those feelies.”
“Of course it is,” the Controller agreed. “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.”
“But they don’t mean anything.”
“They mean themselves; they mean a lot of agreeable sensations to the audience.”
“But they’re . . . they’re told by an idiot.”4
On what basis do feelies not have value or potential to be fine art? How can they mean nothing? Huxley’s bias against new media and eroticism shows glaringly through these lines. Firstly, while the feelies are technically not “fine art,” to even dismiss the potential of a multisensory experience like this is blatant contemptuousness that can be directly tied back to Huxley’s distaste for the talkies. Additionally, the statement that non-intellectual media has no value and means nothing is false. Sexuality and entertainment are important parts of culture that have been around since the dawn of time. I would argue that in a hypothetical dystopia where Shakespearean texts were being used to manipulate and distract people, Huxley would not take as strong an issue. In this passage, and throughout the novel, Huxley’s condemnation of the Brave New World comes across as a critique of sexuality and new media. By specifically juxtaposing the feelies themselves with what in his personal opinion is “fine art,” instead of juxtaposing the compulsory context of the feelies with the freedom to choose what you would prefer to entertain yourself with, Huxley puts more emphasis on his dislike of the feelies as an entity A than he does on the fact that people are practically forced to watch them. In a world where someone had the choice to see a feelie or read Shakespeare, Huxley would still be upset if the person chose a feelie on their own volition. Frost describes the heightened complexity of reading about the feelies from a modern day perspective:
Huxley depicts a culture in which pleasure is compulsory and engineered to eliminate intellectual challenge and to produce docile citizens. However, the culture that is meant to be repulsive is secured by a wide variety of “fun” that is often, from a readerly perspective, pointedly engaging. That is, there are moments in the novel in which the reader is brought face to face with “fun” that escapes Huxley’s withering critique.5
It may be easy to compartmentalize this opposition toward new media and sexualities by attributing it to the mores of the 1930s. The fact is, however, that to this day, we still see the characterization of sexual positivity and liberation as a facet of dystopia, in entertainment, culture, and policy.
In entertainment, we see the constant depiction of sex workers as deviants and criminals, mostly in crime shows, as well as futuristic depictions of them used to represent a decline in morality. Consider for example the movie Idiocracy (2006), which follows a sex worker and shames her and sex work itself throughout the entire movie. Additionally, recent uproar against female sexuality in music, like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s song “WAP” (2020), illustrates society’s continuing discomfort with women embracing pleasure. In real life, we see even more meaningful manifestations of our society’s taboo of sexuality than we even do in entertainment media. Examples include purity rings, abstinence pledges, denying access to contraceptives and abortions, and the devaluation and punishment of sex work. These ideas are so prevalent because they are not only beliefs held by conservatives, but by “feminists” who confuse a society in which women’s sexual autonomy is becoming increasingly more prominent (sex work becoming less stigmatized, virginity holding less importance, etc.) with a society that views women as purely sexual objects. This is a falsity because it assumes that women exist for men, and that women’s sexuality exists inherently to please men and not for their own happiness and pleasure. It also normalizes men having no self control of their view of women, whereas even if a woman is sexually liberated, a man still should respect her. The idea that sexual freedom leads to objectification is victim-blaming, and is arguably even more harmful than the straightforward conservatism that argues “how we want society to behave is just how it should be” or “this is how God intended it,” because this false feminism misconstrues ideas that should be beneficial to the fight for women’s rights into ideas that harm and impede said fight.
Because of the long-established idea of sexuality, especially female sexuality, as depraved and not liberating, we are now seeing many people calling for preemptive regulation of sexual innovations of the future. In her article “New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots. A Feminist Dystopia/Utopia?” author Tanja Kubes discusses the arguments against sex dolls made by feminists who say that such dolls promote the possession of women. They fear that the dolls will become realistic AI robots for consumers to use as they please, and therefore reinforce the idea of women as sexual possessions. Kubes believes that this argument is extrapolation: We are extremely far away from creating a realistic “sex robot”; most products currently available today are only dolls that do not have AI technology. Additionally, Kubes disagrees with the hypotetical impact of innovation in this field, describing how it may actually allow for “liberated forms of sexual pleasure beyond fixed normalizations, thus contributing to a sex-positive utopian future.”6
Despite these current examples, as time goes on, a growing portion of the population seems to be becoming more and more open to, and even in favor of, sexual pleasure itself. In a 1953 study, it was found that less than 1 percent of American women owned (or admitted to owning) a vibrator.7 . In twenty years, this number rose to 14 percent, then 50 percent in 2009, and 78 percent in 2017.8,9 Kubes attributes this change to media like Sex and the City’s so-called “rabbit episode,” which helped to popularize personal pleasure devices among women. Along with the rise of pleasure in the mainstream, we have seen a rise in the depiction of sexual pleasure in association with utopias. The article “Sex in Utopia: Eutopian and Dystopian Sexual Relations” by Lyman Sargent and Lucy Sargisson compares the roles that sex has played in utopias and dystopias throughout time, and found the trend that sexual pleasure has been becoming more of a characteristic of utopias especially among liberal authors. Of the texts Sargent and Sargisson analyze, the one that stands out most in comparison with Brave New World is Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. The 1976 novel contains both a dystopia and a utopia, which are contrasted with each other and the modern day. Mattapoisett, the utopia in Woman on the Edge of Time, is a place where babies are made in tubes (although they are not genetically modified or brainwashed as in Brave New World), communities parent children, children engage in “sex games,” there are no heterosexual norms, and polyamory is normal but sex is not compulsory. A passage from “Sex in Utopia” describes sex in Mattapoisett as
a form of relationship. It may be an occasional or one-off encounter (expressing fun, joy in another’s company, healing, deep affection, or just strong physical attraction), or it can be part of a binding and lasting relationship. It is not casual, but it can be lighthearted and short-lasting. It is not callous and is never an exercise of power. It is physically and emotionally affirmative. This, Piercy suggests, is good sex in a good society.10
Mattapoisett shares similar attributes with Brave New World. However, it lacks the aspects of control and manipulation that really are the true signifiers of dystopia in Brave New World, like compulsory sex, brainwashing, and caste systems. Despite this, I believe that Huxley would still view Mattapoisett if not as a dystopia then as an unfavorable society, as would many people today. The dystopia in Woman on the Edge of Time is similar to the predicted futures of the feminists mentioned in “New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots: A Feminist Dystopia/Utopia?” It is a society where women are “contracted” (but effectively enslaved, as they cannot leave the house and have limited freedoms) for sex, their bodies modified to a cartoonesque standard of beauty. The dystopia is “heterosexual, patriarchal, and deeply hierarchal.”11 The juxtaposition of a society where sex is used to oppress versus one where sex is used to liberate shows Piercy’s progressivism. Instead of claiming that sexual oppression and misogyny are opposites of abstinence, she knew that sexism was not an inherent part of sexual liberation, and she imagined a world that knew that too as a utopia.
A utopia like Mattapoisett may be far, far into the future, but a world where sexuality is valued and not tabooed could come sooner, by means of changes in policy, perspective, and the reframing of pleasure innovations. Kubes argues that innovation in pleasure technology is not inherently dystopian and can be used to fight the negative concepts we have of sex today, saying “we should strive for a sex-positive utopian future, playing an active role in the creation of post-gender pleasure robots and doing our part in changing the narratives about sex, love, and robots.”12 She cites the vibrators that so many women have today; modern ones no longer look like anatomical male body parts, but are more abstract and genderless. The market for male pleasure innovations is one where most controversy regarding the commercial objectification of women lies, but it is also a market where there is so much room for a deviation from how we currently see sex. Instead of sex robots mimicking hyperfeminization, the development of more gender neutral, nonanatomical pleasure products aimed at men could extend the norms for sex away from heteronormativity and the gender binary. As Kubes writes, “Sex robots epitomize the decoupling of sexual craving from biological/social sex and/or gender and hold the potential for a radical pluralization of desire relations that no longer excludes nonmainstream forms of sexuality.”13 By looking at the decoupling of sex from biological utility as a way to potentially widen self expression and pleasure, instead of looking at it as sinful or depraved, we can create a utopia in which there are fewer gender hierarchies in sexual relationships. As for political changes, these seem somehow more difficult to make than creating new technology. What is really needed is a decriminalization of sexuality all together. Sex work should not be illegal, and it should be regulated so as to keep workers safe and healthy. Policies that prevent safe sex and abortions should not exist, because they only demonize sex more, despite it being completely natural and normal, not to mention the infringement on personal rights. Finally, big cultural shifts are necessary to reframe sex. This starts in schools, where sex education is extremely overlooked. Possibly the most controversial activities in both Brave New World and Woman on the Edge of Time are the “sex games” played by children. While I do not see them as necessary to have a sexually healthy society, I think Piercy was right to including them to demonstrate that educating children on their bodies, sexuality, and safety is crucial in building a world where adults are no longer ashamed of their sexuality, know how to take care of their own sexual health, and prevent nonconsensual sex—the real problem in Brave New World.
Although sometimes looked at as a path to dystopia, normalizing sexual liberation, whether it in terms of sexual orientation, virginity, or personal pleasure, can lead to more equal, free societies in the future, especially if pleasurable innovations are oriented towards this goal. We should work to make sex less stigmatized and politicized, and separate it from gendered norms. By doing this we stray further from dystopic ideas of ownership that come from viewing sex as an act of power or superiority, and become closer to a world with far fewer sexual crimes and much more bodily awareness, autonomy, and freedom.
- Aldous Huxley, “Silence Is Golden: Vanity Fair: July 1929,” Vanity Fair: The Complete Archive, Vanity Fair, July 1, 1929 (20).
- Laura Frost, “Huxley’s Feelies: Engineered Pleasure in Brave New World,” in The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents (Columbia Press University, 2013), 132.
- Frost, “Huxley’s Feelies,”’ 136.
- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 220–221.
- Frost, “Huxley’s Feelies,” 136.
- Tanja Kubes, “New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots: A Feminist Dystopia/Utopia?” Social Sciences 8, no. 8 (2019): 224-238.
- Kubes, “New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots.”
- Kubes “New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots.”
- Kunst, “Sex Toy Ownership by Type in the U.S. 2017,” Statista, June 29, 2020.
- Lynman Tower Sargent and Lucy Sargisson, “Sex in Utopia: Eutopian and Dystopian Sexual Relations.” Utopian Studies 25, no. 2 (2014).
- Sargent and Sargisson, “Sex in Utopia.”
- Kubes, “New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots.”
- Kubes, “New Materialist Perspectives on Sex Robots.”